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A WALK IN THE PARK

Helen Pryke



Copyright Helen Pryke 2017

Cover copyright Francesco Valla 2017


Smashwords Edition



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The characters and situations in this book are entirely imaginary and bear no relation to any real person or actual happenings.

Other books by Helen Pryke

Walls of Silence (ebook and paperback)

Living in the mountains of Sicily, Maria has the perfect childhood until the tragic accident that changes her life forever. The events that follow will take her away from her home town to the streets of Milan, in an ever-increasing spiral of abuse and deception. Will she ever be able to trust anyone ever again? Set in turbulent 1960s Italy, Walls of Silence is the story of a girl who must find the courage and strength to survive her family’s betrayal and the prejudices of her country.

5 star reviews for Walls of Silence:

“The wonderfully written characters and the world in which they find themselves in, Italy in the sixties is captivating and superbly done.”

“A very powerful novel that is filled with abuse, strength, sadness and love.”

“A well written book, it was difficult for me to put it down.

This is a story which leaves you thinking at the end. Well done.”


Autumn Sky (a free short story)

Available at all online retailers

The day Julia’s best friend Becky gives her a magazine article to read, her whole world falls apart. After years of emotional and psychological abuse, is Julia ready to face the truth about her perfect marriage to Simon or will she continue to hide her head in the sand? Autumn Sky is a short story of 7,000 words and includes the prologue of Walls of Silence, Helen Pryke's debut novel.


The Healer’s Secret (ebook and paperback)

Coming soon


A story of secrets, betrayal and magic that spans three generations of a family in Tuscany.


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A Walk In The Park


Like all good fairy tales, this story starts with “Once upon a time”. However, unlike all good fairy tales, there is no princess who lives happily ever after. But this is a story based on real life, and everyone knows that real life isn’t a fairy tale, don’t they? For now, enough of all that. Let us begin.

Once upon a time there was a girl (me) called Anne. Anne lived in the city, in an apartment that overlooked an enormous, shady park. Every day she got up early, got dressed and went to work. She liked going to work; not so much for her job, which for her was just a way of earning money, but for her daily walk across the park on her way to work. Unlike many people, she was happy with her own company and she was content with her solitary life. She thought things would carry on in this way for a long, long time. Obviously she was wrong (otherwise there would be no story). One day, everything changed. Forever.

One hot, sunny day in August, Anne left her apartment and strode towards the park. As usual, she stopped at the newsagent’s on the way and picked up her copy of The Times (she preferred glossy magazines but she had to look like a serious business woman in front of her male colleagues). She bought a take-away coffee at the kiosk and entered the park. That morning there was a pleasant breeze that made the leaves on the trees flutter and blew her long, black hair around her face. She smiled, happy, and made her way towards ‘her’ bench, always unoccupied so early in the morning.

But that morning it wasn’t unoccupied. There was a man sitting in her place, calmly watching the world go by without even realising that he was sending Anne into a flurry of panic. What should she do? This had never happened before. Should she walk past and look for another bench? She stood still, hesitant, unsure how to handle this situation. Then she started to get angry. Why should she let that man, whoever he was, ruin her day, which had started so well? She straightened her shoulders and determinedly plonked herself down beside the man. They both sat there on the bench, ignoring each other. Anne sipped her coffee, blowing lightly on it to cool it down, and she started to read her newspaper. Yet she found it hard to concentrate as she was so very aware of the man sitting next to her.

She furtively glanced across at him and her traitorous heart began beating more quickly. He was so handsome, with his blond hair and blue eyes - just like a real-life prince charming! He seemed so comfortably relaxed, his long legs stretched out before him and his arms crossed. The typical pose of a self-assured man. He must have felt the force of her stare because he turned towards her and smiled. She felt her cheeks burning - she was certain they’d turned bright red and quickly looked away, embarrassed.

“Hi,” he said in a friendly voice.

“Er, hello,” Anne answered, not sure where to look.

“Sorry if I’ve nicked your spot but I wanted to see what was so amazing about this bench. I’ve seen you sitting here sometimes and you seem so happy and relaxed, as if you’d returned home after a long absence.” He laughed, embarrassed. “I don’t know if that makes any sense?”

Anne looked at him in surprise. He’d just described exactly how she felt every time she sat on the bench. “I don’t remember seeing you before,” she said.

“You probably don’t recognise me” he said, then changed the subject. “My name’s Mark, pleased to meet you.”

They passed a pleasant half an hour in chatting, getting to know each other, becoming friends. When Anne had to leave to go to work, they arranged to meet again the following morning.

So now Anne had two reasons for getting up every morning: her daily walk in the park and meeting her new friend. Time passed, she got used to the new routine, and everything carried on as if it had always been like that.

Inevitably however, because this is a fairy tale after all, everything changed again. Anne and Mark met up on the bench one afternoon after work and started chatting. Suddenly they heard a loud shriek that came from some nearby trees. They both jumped up and ran towards the noise, where they found a tragic scene. There on the ground, under the gnarled branches of an ancient oak, lay the unmoving body of a young boy. His left leg was bent and seemed broken. But the most terrible thing was his head. It was twisted round in an unnatural way and a thin line of blood dribbled out of the boy’s half-open mouth.

Anne ran over to the boy, then stopped, unsure what to do. She reached out a hand and put two fingers on his neck. “I can’t feel a pulse,” she whispered, terrified.

Mark didn’t say anything. He knelt down, heedless of dirtying his trousers, and started unbuttoning the boy’s shirt.

“What are you doing?” Anne cried.

“Shush!” he answered. Then he stared straight into her eyes. “I need you to be quiet now, if I’m to help him. Whatever happens, you mustn’t make any noise. OK?”

She nodded, confused. “Of course,” she said. “But can you really do anything?”

Mark sighed heavily. “I think so. Let me work now. Remember, no noise.”

Anne held her breath while she watched Mark. He put both his hands on the boy’s bare chest and started applying pressure. For a few seconds nothing happened, then Anne’s eyes opened wide in shock. A white, hot light flowed along Mark’s arms towards the boy’s chest, then passed over his body, getting brighter until Anne had to shield her eyes from its glare. She bit her tongue to stop herself crying out when she saw the boy’s chest rise and fall, once, twice, three times, and he started to breathe regularly. But the surprises were not over yet. Anne watched, open-mouthed, as the boy’s neck slowly straightened up and the trickle of blood flowed backwards until it had gone. His left leg went back into place and now it looked as if the boy was just sleeping. Her hands started shaking and she was sure she would start screaming at any moment. The boy opened his eyes and sat up, a surprised expression on his face.

“Wh-where am I?” he asked, dazed.

“Stay still, you fell out of a tree. You should be OK now, but be more careful in future,” Mark answered.

Somehow, through the mists of shock that surrounded her, Anne realised that there was something wrong with Mark. His voice seemed different, somehow, deeper. She slowly turned and stared at him, then she did begin to scream. It felt as if she were in the middle of a nightmare and couldn’t wake up. Her beautiful prince charming looked at least twenty years older all of a sudden. His blond hair was now streaked with grey and he had deep wrinkles around his eyes. He jumped up and put an arm around her shoulders.

“Wait just a bit longer, then I’ll explain everything,” he whispered. They helped the boy stand up and watched as he made his way back home across the park. Anne shuddered; the young boy strode purposefully over the grass, full of vitality, but in her mind’s eye all she could see was his twisted, broken body devoid of any life.

Mark led Anne to their bench and they sat down. Then, speaking in a low voice, he began. He told her about his pet rabbit that had broken its leg when he was four years old, about how he had felt an incredible heat pass from his body to the rabbit’s, about how the animal had leapt off his lap and started running around, its leg intact. At the beginning he’d thought that his ‘magic touch’ was a blessing but he’d soon understood that it was a curse. By the time he was six he had the body of a twelve-year-old and he’d learnt to stay away from injured people or animals. His parents had refused to believe that he was able to heal and they never spoke about it. He had left home as soon as he could and up until then he had tried to live a normal life.

Anne stared at him, incredulous. “How old are you?” she murmured. What if he told her he was fifteen?

“I’m twenty-two,” Mark answered.

“I th-thought you were at least thirty,” Anne stammered. Oh no, he was ten years younger than her!

“I’m sorry,” Mark said. “I’ve never spoken about this to anyone before. I wanted to... but I didn’t know how to tell you.”

Anne shook her head sadly. “I’m so sorry. But if it hadn’t been for you that boy would be dead now. Instead he’s gone back home as if nothing ever happened to him today. I...” She started crying, unable to carry on. He held her tight, murmuring reassuring words in her ear.

From that moment, their relationship changed. They lived every day to the full, grateful for another chance to see each other. They told each other everything about themselves, completely open and honest, laughing and crying together, holding nothing back. And every now and then he had a few more grey hairs or some deeper wrinkles and she learnt not to ask questions but to accept him for what he was.

Until the day that Anne crossed the road in front of the park, unaware that the approaching lorry driver was too engrossed in his telephone conversation to notice her, until a squeal of brakes preceded the loud bang that seemed to explode through her head. She found herself lying on the ground, a pool of blood under her head, hardly conscious, but she knew that Mark was running over to her and that he was going to touch her.

He’s here,’ said a voice inside her head, and there was his voice, so familiar, murmuring loving words in her ear. She wanted to tell him not to touch her, to go away, but she couldn’t, she was too weak. Suddenly she felt a wave of heat pass through her body and then the pain was gone. She opened her eyes and saw his face, an old man’s face, watching her, worry etched all over it.

“Hello, sweetheart,” he whispered. “You’re all right now.”

She lifted her arm and stroked his white hair, tears streaming down her face. “You shouldn’t have done it,” she sobbed. “Look at you now!”

He smiled. “Be more careful in future, both for yourself and for our son,” he said. His face suddenly turned white and he slumped to the ground. Anne started screaming, knowing that he was gone forever, and it felt as if she would never stop.


Like I said, there’s no “and she lived happily ever after in this story. After all, real life is no fairy tale, although it can seem magical at times. Today, I’m sat here on the bench with a glossy magazine next to me (no more Times, no more office, I’m living life to the full now) and a light breeze gently blows through my hair, like a loving hand caressing me, reassuring me. I smile as I watch the sleeping baby in the pram, my son, Mark’s son. The two of us taking our daily walk in the park.


THE END

If you liked this short story, please leave a review!

Read an excerpt from The Healer’s Secret,

coming soon!


Prologue

Tuscany, 1348


Agnes slipped quietly out of the house, taking care not to wake the rest of the household. Outside, the world was dark and still, the birds and insects asleep, resting in those final moments before dawn, when they would fill the air once more with their chaotic sounds and incessant movement.

She made her way down through the garden, the dew on the grass soaking her thin slippers, sending cold chills up her feet. She pulled her gown tighter around her, and opened the gate to the fenced-off piece of garden that was her own private space. Stepping inside, she breathed in the rich aroma of freshly-dug earth. She’d planted the last herbs just the day before, and now her garden was complete.

She sighed as she remembered proudly showing her husband, enjoying the look of amazement on his face as he’d gazed upon the work she’d done. He’d insisted she get the gardeners to do everything, telling her it wasn’t work for a woman. She’d used them to plant the hedge and the large fruit trees, but she hadn’t trusted anyone else to plant her precious herbs.

“What on earth?” he’d cried out as an insect flew near them, its wings vibrating with a low hum.

“It’s just a dragonfly,” she’d replied, smiling. “It’s full of them here. Look.”

He’d stared in wonder as he saw the insects all around them, on every plant and bush, their brightly-coloured bodies shining like jewels in the sun.

“I’m going to call this place the Dragonfly Grove. What do you think?” She’d waited with bated breath for his answer, needing his benediction.

“I think it’s perfect,” he’d replied, putting an arm around her.

“Oof.” She’d grimaced as she felt a sharp kick in her belly. “I think little one approves too!”

She smiled now at the memory, stroking a hand across her stomach, its occupant finally still after the restless night they’d passed. She went quickly around the garden, having no need of light as she walked among the plants and picked the ingredients she required. She murmured an apology each time before she removed the leaves, caressing the plant before moving on to the next one.

She went back to the house and stirred up the ashes in the grate so she could start boiling the leaves. Young Matteo’s wound was serious, and she needed to prepare the herbs for his poultice. They had brought the boy to her a few days earlier, a deep cut in his arm. She’d cleaned it and stitched him up while he told her how the scythe he’d been using had slipped out of his grip and embedded itself in his flesh, so deeply that he’d thought for a moment they’d have to amputate his arm. She’d laughed and reassured him that as long as she was looking after him, there’d be no need for that.

The leaves simmering gently in a pot, she went down the corridor to the pantry. She lit a candle and held it in front of her, proud of what she had achieved in so little time – the shelves were full of earthenware jars and glass bottles containing chopped, dried herbs, ready-made salves, and every type of lotion she might need for every ailment she could think of.

‘I’ll have to write down the recipes,’ she suddenly thought. ‘So I don’t forget them, so I can make notes of what works and what doesn’t, the right amounts…’

She was rudely awakened from her thoughts by a loud banging at the back door. She grabbed the candle and hurried to the kitchen. One of the servants had already opened the door to their visitor, an old man with a worried look on his weathered face. He started as she entered the room.

The knocking woke up everyone else. Riccardo was in his usual place at the kitchen table, while Betta the scullery maid sat on a wooden stool beside the fireplace, yawning widely as she tossed sticks onto the fire. A couple of other servants stood in the corridor, nudging each other and whispering. Agnes remained standing, waiting for the old man in front of them to speak.

He cleared his throat, twisting his cap nervously in his hands. She recognised him as one of the gardeners, Giacomo if she remembered rightly.

“Please, tell us what you have to say,” she said gently.

“It’s… ahem… well, Matteo.” He stopped.

“Yes?” She tried to keep calm, knowing that any sign of impatience would make him clam up immediately.

“He-he… oh, to hell with it!” The old man looked mortified at his slip of tongue in front of the lady of the house. “He died this morning, just half an hour ago, ma’am.”

She felt her head spin and swayed as her legs threatened to give way. “No,” she whispered. “No, it’s not possible.”

Riccardo reached her in two strides and took hold of her outstretched hands, clasping them in his. “These hands can heal, Agnes, but they can’t do miracles,” he told her, understanding her turmoil. “You can’t defeat death.”

She squeezed her eyes shut, tears escaping from beneath her lashes. She fell against his chest, sobbing uncontrollably, scenes of death and destruction flashing before her, the sickly stench of rotting carcasses filling her senses. And as she cried, his words echoed in her head: You can’t defeat death, Agnes, you can’t defeat death.


© Helen Pryke 2017








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